Content Notice: Racism, White Liberalism, Ableism
Today an op-ed by Lionel Shriver popped on my Facebook newsfeed. Some of you may know Lionel Shriver from her writing but I don’t read very much fiction so I know her because I read Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s critique of Shriver’s keynote at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. That critique appears to have inspired this op-ed and the keynote that has faced a considerable amount of criticism seems to have stemmed from a negative review of “The Mandibles”, Shriver’s latest novel. So essentially this whole thing is because someone didn’t give Shriver’s book a glowing review and she couldn’t deal with it. The author of that review was Ken Kalfus and I will let him outline the problems with the book in an excerpt from an article he wrote following the keynote mess.
Shriver’s 12th novel is set in a near-future American dystopia where many of the concerns currently expressed by conservatives finally have been realized. After an immigration amnesty, the country is flooded with “Lats” who elect a Mexican-born president who presides over a devastating economic collapse, in part created by runaway entitlements. Shriver observes President Alvarado’s “baby-faced softness only emphasized by the palatalized consonants of a Mexican accent,” a stereotypical image of a pudgy, lisping Mexican that links his perfidy to his ethnicity as would an elliptically described hooked nose on a loathsome Jewish character.
The two black characters are similarly ill-treated. One, a social worker, is the novel’s only character who speaks sub-standard English. After Alvarado renounces the national debt, she says, “I don’t see why the gubment ever pay anything back. Pass a law say, ‘We don’t got to.’ ” It was once common in newspapers, fiction and nonfiction to report the speech of “ordinary” people in standard English, while voicing minorities in dialect or vernacular, as they might sound to white ears; this still happens from time to time, unfortunately. By recording only the speech of minority characters in sub-standard English, you stigmatize the entire ethnic group as something other than normal. No one speaks perfectly. Respect for your characters suggests that if you record one’s solecisms, dropped consonants, drawl or brogue, you will faithfully record everybody else’s, too.
The most problematic of Shriver’s minority characters is an African American woman who has married into the white family at the heart of the novel. She suffers from early-onset dementia and is a danger to herself and to others. As the economy collapses, the family loses its home and treks across Brooklyn with the woman at the end of a leash. A plot development that features an uncontrollable black person who has to be kept under restraint like a dog seems guaranteed to hurt and provoke outrage. I wrote, “If ‘The Mandibles’ is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.” I was thinking of ads in bus shelters and, honestly, I imagined they’d be wrecked.
Shriver, it should be said, insists that the book is only facing accusations of racism because it “doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line”. The thrust of Shriver’s op-ed essentially boils down to her not understanding the difference between censorship and holding people accountable for their words and actions. This seems to be a very difficult difference for many privileged people of a certain age to grasp and Shriver throws around a lot of the usual strawmen but she also sinks to a few new lows, so I suppose that’s impressive. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
The first bit of the op-ed is basically over-dramatic whinging about how writers of fiction need to be able to write characters from backgrounds that are not their own, which no one is preventing her from doing. This entire bit is structured as a direct response to Abdel-Magied’s piece which, as far as I can recall, doesn’t make the argument that writers can never write about things outside of their own experiences. The next couple of paragraphs are made up of Shriver disparaging the “identity politics movement”, which I’m not entirely sure is a thing that exists.
Viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the identity-politics movement — in which behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs is par for the course — is an assertion of generational power. Among millennials and those coming of age behind them, the race is on to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved — who can replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand.
As I said, I’m not really sure what the “identity-politics movement” is. I’m of the generation Shriver is disparaging and I’m thoroughly involved in the social justice world. None of the activists I know have ever used such a term. Perhaps the reason that Shriver had to come up with this new term is because criticizing a series of civil rights movements sounds considerably worse than criticizing the scary new thing known as an “identity-politics movement”. Of course the idea that the world is divided into groups who are advantaged and disadvantaged is not the theory of some strange new movement, it’s an observable fact. It’s how oppression works and it has formed the foundation of every civil or human rights struggle in history. That brings us to Shriver’s strange views on oppression.
When I was growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s, conservatives were the enforcers of conformity. It was the right that was suspicious, sniffing out Communists and scrutinizing public figures for signs of sedition.
Now the role of oppressor has passed to the left. In Australia, where I spoke, Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to do or say anything likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate,” providing alarming latitude in the restriction of free speech. It is Australia’s conservatives arguing for the amendment of this law.
One has to wonder why Shriver went to Australia, since it is obviously such a cesspit of left wing totalitarianism. Of course the truth is that anti-hate speech laws are not a form of oppression and are in fact quite common. The UK, where Shriver lives has them, Canada, where I live, has them, and Germany has rather strict ones concerning things related to certain events which occurred there in the 1930’s and 40’s. Amazingly the UK, Canada, Australia, and Germany have not devolved into totalitarian leftist states. Neither are they free of bigotry and it’s telling that Shriver is more concerned with whether or not she can get away with hate speech than with the actual oppression that is occurring all around her.
As a lifelong Democratic voter, I’m dismayed by the radical left’s ever-growing list of dos and don’ts — by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. There are many people who see these frenzies about cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and safe spaces as overtly crazy. The shrill tyranny of the left helps to push them toward Donald Trump.
I’m not sure why Shriver brings up her voting history here but I find it amusing that she is sad about having a list of dos and don’ts. The idea that you will be looked down upon by people involved in civil rights activism if you spew bigotry is not new and should not be shocking, in fact it should be expected. Of course we need to get a jab in at some basic social justice concepts that Shriver can’t be bothered to properly understand. This is all rather typical of disgruntled baby boomer critiques of millennial civil rights activism but Shriver begins to sink lower when she essentially blames marginalized people for Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Ironically, only fellow liberals will be cowed by terror of being branded a racist (a pejorative lobbed at me in recent days — one that, however groundless, tends to stick). But there’s still such a thing as a real bigot, and a real misogynist. In obsessing over micro-aggressions like the sin of uttering the commonplace Americanism “you guys” to mean “you all,” activists persecute fellow travelers who already care about equal rights.
This marks the first time that Shriver conflates leftism and liberalism but we will come back to that. Shriver apparently doesn’t like people calling other people racist, for reasons she doesn’t really explain. Maybe it’s because she has been accused of racism, an accusation clearly rooted in fact going by the content of “The Mandibles”. But perhaps she isn’t a “real racist”, whatever that is. Here Shiver will demonstrate the fact that she doesn’t understand the concept of microaggressions. Marginalized people do not obsess over casual bigotry, they are bombarded by it every hour of every day. That’s where the idea of safe spaces comes in. Oppressed people occasionally like to go to places where they aren’t constantly being shit on. Naturally privileged people can’t comprehend this because the entire world is their safe space.
Moreover, people who would hamper free speech always assume that they’re designing a world in which only their enemies will have to shut up. But free speech is fragile. Left-wing activists are just as dependent on permission to speak their minds as their detractors.
These three sentences can be summed up with three more sentences. Leftists know this and that’s why they don’t aim to hamper free speech. No, Lionel, people criticizing you is not censorship.
Ms. Abdel-Magied got the question right: How is this happening? How did the left in the West come to embrace restriction, censorship and the imposition of an orthodoxy at least as tyrannical as the anti-Communist, pro-Christian conformism I grew up with? Liberals have ominously relabeled themselves “progressives,” forsaking a noun that had its roots in “liber,” meaning free. To progress is merely to go forward, and you can go forward into a pit.
Someone needs to tell Ms. Shriver that liberal and progressive are not synonyms. The majority of people who support the things that Shriver holds in such contempt have never identified as liberals. Part of that is probably because of the kind of crap that Shriver has spewed in this op-ed. The majority of liberals like Shriver seem to care more about about protecting the bigot’s right to oppress then standing up with the oppressor’s victims. Sure, they will oppose bigotry on the surface but they have no interest in dismantling the underlying systems that allow it to flourish. Shriver ensures us that she is a fellow traveler who already cares about equal rights but in the proceeding paragraph she refers to the things that activists from marginalized groups say are important as “overtly crazy”.
Protecting freedom of speech involves protecting the voices of people with whom you may violently disagree. In my youth, liberals would defend the right of neo-Nazis to march down Main Street. I cannot imagine anyone on the left making that case today.
This final paragraph is perhaps the most profoundly tone deaf part of this whole mess, as Shriver longs for the days when the left or liberals (she uses them interchangeably) stood up for the rights of Nazis. I’m not sure how the Battle of Cable Street fits into her strange history of the left, since last I checked the leftists of London most certainly did not stand up for the BUF’s right to march. It’s beyond me why Shriver thinks Nazis are the ones who need their rights defended when we have a bonafide white supremacist, fascist demagogue a hairs breath away from becoming the president of the United States. Shriver might also want to do a little research because the concept of microaggressions was developed in the 1970’s, an era that Shriver longs to return to, because apparently back in the 60’s and 70’s civil rights activists fought for the rights of the oppressors and not just the oppressed. Apparently I missed all those speeches from the 60’s where activists defended the Klan’s right to rally and burn crosses because of freedom of speech.